DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Isobel, Kate and Mary, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them.
SPOILERS: This story refers to some events in seasons 1-3 of Bad Girls.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
January 2001 - the day of the killing
Nikki swam back to consciousness and opened her eyes slowly. She blinked as the world gradually came into focus and wondered if it was time for unlock. She started to turn over and then stopped as she registered the difference in the light and the fact that she wasn't in a bunk bed. This wasn't Larkhall .... She shook her head, aware of a strange grogginess that seemed to be fogging her thoughts, and groaned as she felt her pounding headache intensify.
A familiar voice spoke in a soft Scottish accent at her side. "Nikki ...."
"What? Helen? Where am I?"
"You're in hospital."
With the voice to hold on to, more details sank in. She was in a side ward, with the other three beds empty. She could hear the faint, distant roar of London traffic from beyond the windows. The room was painted in institutional green, with inactive medical equipment ranged by each bay. The curtains were drawn back, allowing the bleak January light to flood the room.
Nikki glanced down at the blue bedding and then across into Helen's face, focusing on the familiar features; dark shoulder length hair, framing the striking, olive skinned face, its strong jaw set in concern. Hazel eyes that were looking worriedly into her own as the shorter woman leant almost protectively across her.
Her memories started to come back. The appeal. Being released. Helen coming to the bar afterwards. The two months they'd had together since then. She smiled involuntarily, filing the memory for later contemplation, and returned to the present.
Gingerly, Nikki sat up in bed. "What happened? My head hurts."
"You've had a knock," Helen told her softly, "thirsty?"
Helen stood up and went to the other side of the room to get her the water Nikki'd asked for. Nikki looked at the door of the side ward, wondering which hospital she was in, and frowned as she saw a police woman standing outside, only her back visible through the glass pane.
"Did I get mugged, or something?"
"Can't you remember?" Helen asked, crossing back and handing her the water. Nikki drank and held on to the cup for something to do with her hands. She started to shake her head and rapidly decided that wasn't a good idea.
"What's the last thing you remember?"
Nikki thought back. A confused memory of pushing somebody away flickered briefly across her consciousness. She dismissed that and concentrated. "Getting a paper this morning. Something about house prices on the front page ... and I got a bottle of milk. We'd run out."
She'd bought a packet of cigarettes as well, she remembered guiltily. Giving them up was proving harder than she'd thought.
"Nikki," Helen said.
For the first time Nikki focused on how tired and strained her lover looked. She was dressed in casual clothes that looked as though she'd thrown them on in a hurry and didn't have any make-up on.
"That was yesterday. Something terrible's happened since then."
Nikki knew that tone of voice. Cold apprehension started to pool in her stomach. "What?"
"You have to prepare for a shock."
"What d'you mean?"
"Jim Fenner's been killed."
"Is that all? Great! Put out some flags."
Helen looked round furtively. "Don't say that," she instructed in a low voice.
"Why not? I'm glad the bastard's dead."
"Nikki ... he was found dead in my flat. With a fatal stab wound."
"This morning. You were there too. He'd knocked you out."
"I can't remember any of this."
"Well, the police want to interview you about it. They say your fingerprints are on the knife."
"Keep it down! She'll hear us."
Frowning, Nikki lowered her voice. "How come I'm not already under arrest?"
"The sister here is a bit of an old dragon, thankfully. She won't let the police near you until you're better. She says they have to speak to the consultant and he's busy."
She reached out and took Nikki's hand. "Are you sure you can't remember anything about ...?"
"Not really. Well ... maybe bits and pieces."
"It'll come back to you. You'll be fine," Helen said. Nikki wasn't sure who she was trying to convince.
"No I won't," Nikki said. She could feel the familiar tension starting to burn in her throat. "I've already got form. Who'll believe I didn't do it, specially when I can't even say what happened?"
"Nikki, they have to prove it beyond reasonable doubt! I've already phoned Claire."
"Yeah? A man I'm known to hate, a stabbing like last time. The prosecution can probably argue similar circumstance and bring up my previous. They'll hang me out to dry."
"No, Nikki, you mustn't think like that!"
Nikki felt like throwing the cup at the wall. Instead she put it aside and reached for Helen, who moved into her arms. Nikki clung to her, hiding her fear, trying to memorise everything, to store up a library of impressions before they were forced to let go of each other. She hoped desperately that Helen was right and that she would stand a chance, but deep in her a grim certainty was building. After the brief weeks of freedom she was going to be looking at another prison sentence. Her life, which had been given back to her, was going to be taken away again.
Six months later, on a warm, cloudless summer day, the system proved her right.
July 2001 - the day of the verdict
Helen sat at the bar in Chix, staring blindly at nothing. In the middle of the day, without the bright lights and buzz of the evening crowd, the place looked slightly grubby and tawdry, like a unused stage set. The setting matched Helen's mood. She put her face into her hands, replaying the verdict in her mind, reliving the moment when Nikki had shot her a single, despairing, look before being taken down the steps of the dock to another life sentence. The thing that Helen had promised her wouldn't happen.
Nikki had stood quietly in her suit, outwardly impassive, as the jury had returned their 'Guilty' verdict, her shoulders held back, her hands folded in front of her. She had taken care over her appearance; with her subdued make-up and neatly styled short, dark hair she had looked like a business executive going to see the bank manager, not a woman on trial for manslaughter.
Her brown eyes had been calm and level, her face still. She had not reacted as the judge had imposed a minimum twenty year tariff, even though she knew what it meant for her chances of early parole. Helen had been filled with a conflicting mass of emotions. On one level she had been awed and humbled by the tall woman's courage; Nikki knew what she was being sent to after her earlier time in prison. On another she wanted her to be less brave, to shout at the court, voice a protest at the injustice of what was happening; to lose the composed disguise and express her feelings. As though doing so would somehow make them realise what a mistake they had made in returning their verdict. Would act as a proxy for Helen's outrage and shock.
Helen swallowed, feeling the metallic taste of grief and exhaustion fill her mouth.
She turned her head as she heard someone talking and realised that Trisha was still on the phone, canvassing support. Helen wasn't surprised. The blonde had been a solid ally in the last six months, keeping Chix going even as she had helped with Nikki's defence. She had proven a skilful guide to the intricacies of London's lesbian scene for a newcomer like Helen, still relatively unsure about her changed identity and needing to understand it in order to canvass support for her partner's case. Helen admired her more because she knew that Trisha still had feelings for Nikki and that she had stepped back in deference to her new relationship.
"No, we're opening tonight. Listen, I'm not going to let them beat us. We'll do it for Nikki, OK. Just ... spread the word." She listened, then nodded, blinking back tears. "Yeah, too right. Later, babe."
She ended the phone call and looked across the bar, meeting Helen's gaze. "How're you holding up?"
"I let her down," Helen said bleakly, "I promised her this wouldn't happen."
"Bullshit!" Trisha said explosively. "You've kept her spirits up the whole time. You made her believe that she'd be all right, even when it was hopeless. She owes the last few months to you. Don't forget that."
"Well it doesn't really matter, does it?" Helen rasped. "She's still looking at another life sentence."
Her voice cracked. "Back inside. Jesus Christ! Right now she's in a meat wagon, being taken to somewhere like Larkhall for processing. Looking at being strip searched and dehumanised and then being put in a cell to rot."
"I know," Trisha said. She set her shoulders. "We got her out before. We'll get her out again."
"Will we?" Helen asked. "Do you really think so?"
"I think that I need to order extra security for tonight," Trisha said, "some of the reporters are bound to come sniffing round."
"You're avoiding the question."
"Damm right I am. I remember this from last time." Trisha looked bleakly round the bar. "I was so sure she was going to get off. I had a party planned. And then I came back to our flat, after the verdict, and the whole place was decorated with streamers and balloons and 'Welcome Home' signs ...."
She moved to the dishwasher and started unloading clean glasses onto the shelves above the bar, her movements practiced and mechanical. Helen watched her face in the mirror behind the bar, watched her build the hard, competent front back as she spoke.
"I came in here and I set the place up, on my own. That's when it really sank in. She wasn't coming home. All because she tried to protect me."
"She's good at that," Helen said bitterly.
They shared a look of perfect understanding. The door bell rang, interrupting them. Trisha moved towards the intercom and CCTV monitor that covered the entrance and, after a quick conversation, buzzed the visitor through. Helen got to her feet as she recognised Claire, Nikki's solicitor and an old friend. She was dressed for court. Her blonde hair was scraped back into its usual severe pony tail, complementing her practical, business like appearance. Instead of speaking, Claire dropped her briefcase and hugged Helen. Puzzled, the Scot broke it off quickly, staring into the other woman's face.
"Have you seen her?"
"Yes. One of the detention officers owed me a favour. I had about an hour with her."
"How is she?"
"Depressed. Angry. Quite resigned, in a strange way."
"She's doing her strong and silent," Trisha said knowingly.
"I think so," Claire said, "I didn't want to say anything but I've been worried since the jury saw the photographs. I think Nikki's known the outcome for a while."
"It didn't help when they allowed similar fact evidence," Helen said, "bastards."
"Bitch," Claire said tiredly, "it was the judge's decision."
"We can talk about that some other time," Helen said, "when do we submit the appeal?"
"I'll start work on it tomorrow," Claire said. She looked between Trisha and Helen, hesitated, then took an envelope out of her jacket pocket and held it out.
"This is for you."
"From Nikki?" Helen asked. Claire nodded. Helen frowned. Something struck her as off in the situation, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. In any event, she didn't really care. She had a letter from Nikki and only her manners stopped her from grabbing the envelope and ripping it open.
Claire pushed the message into her hand. Gently, she touched Helen's shoulder.
"It's not good news, Helen."
"Read it and see."
Helen slowly opened the envelope and pulled out the single A4 sheet inside. She recognised the paper; Claire must have given it to Nikki during one of their consultations. She concentrated on the text, trying not to notice that there were none of the familiar X's by the signature. No kisses. Why would Nikki put no kisses on a letter to her?
Helen read the letter, then read it again, tears blurring her vision. It was short and to the point, almost business like. Helen scanned the sentence about 'Not dragging you down with me.' for a third time and wondered bleakly if it hurt more than the phrases about 'moving on' and 'finding someone else' In the roaring pain that filled her, she found that it all amounted to the same thing. Each sentence was like a blow, part of an uncalled for assault. She put her hand across her face, feeling her jaw tighten with pain, and tried to choke back the sobs.
She felt warmth on her shoulders and realised that Claire had put an arm around her and was steering her to a bar stool. Numbly, she allowed herself to be guided, and sat down, mind still churning over the contents of the letter.
"Does she mean this?"
"Yes," Claire said, "she told me not to get you any visiting orders. If you come into prison with me, she'll fire me."
"Why?" Helen asked bleakly.
"She said the letter would tell you."
"No! Why didn't she have the courage to tell me to my face?"
"Because she couldn't have done it," Trisha said.
"So you're saying she is a coward."
"No," Trisha said. Her glance flickered over to the bar. "You know how brave she is. She probably thought it'd be easier, if you got a letter. Less painful."
"I'd least I'd have seen her one more time."
"You want your last memory to be a row?" Trisha challenged her.
"I don't want to have a last memory," Helen said bleakly, "I just want for it not to have happened."
"So you're the famous killer," the voice said from the door of the cell.
Nikki looked up from her book. She deliberately kept her tone non confrontational. "Don't think I'm that famous. Just another con. Nothing special."
"Are you trying to be insolent?"
"No, Sir. Keeping my head down and doing my time, that's all."
The screw walked in. Nikki didn't recognise him; she hadn't got a handle on all the new faces yet. She recognised the type, though. Young, vicious, enjoying the power the job gave him. It was obvious from his body language and appearance. His hair was shaved close to his head, scalp white through the stubble. The heavy boots were shined to a mirror finish; his shirt was sharply creased and, despite the summer heat, unwrinkled. 'Must change it twice a day', Nikki thought. He looked like a drill sergeant, minus the insignia.
She didn't move as he paced around the cell, studying her as though he was trying to memorise her face. For all Nikki knew, he was. She waited him out, willing herself not to tense up or betray anything in her expression. The trick was not to let them psych you out.
"I hear you've been keeping your nose clean."
"Trying to, Sir."
"That just means we haven't caught you yet."
His voice was low and insinuating now, close by. She could feel his hot breath on her ear and moved her head away slightly. He straightened up.
"Right. I'm spinning your cell. On your feet."
Nikki got up from the chair and moved towards the door. They both knew he wasn't supposed to search her cell on his own but Nikki wasn't going to invite trouble by pointing it out to him. She'd speak to her personal officer later and see if that did any good.
"Do you think I was born yesterday, girl?" the officer demanded. He held out his hand. "Give."
Nikki looked at the paperback she was holding. "This?"
Nikki bit her lip, fighting the impulse to react. She wasn't going to give this bastard the satisfaction.
Silently, she handed it over. The PO took it and ran his thumb across the cover before deliberately breaking the spine. He dumped it on the floor, pages coming loose as he did so, and turned to the pile of letters on the desk. "What have we got here?"
"Sir, that's correspondence from my solicitor. It's privileged."
"So you say."
"It's already been 'accidentally' opened once. Look at the envelope," Nikki said, pointing to where the censoring officer had written 'Rule 39' on the flap.
"Well, then it can't be privileged, can it? I'd better check it again."
He read slowly through the letters while Nikki stood watching. As he put them back on the desk he brushed her packet of cigarettes off and stood on it. "Oops! Accidents will happen, won't they."
Nikki didn't reply, not trusting her voice.
He rummaged through everything in the cell, knocking things over, clearing surfaces, taking especial delight in dumping her bed onto the floor. As he left he looked back.
"This place is a pig sty. You're supposed to keep it in good order. Get it cleaned up now or I'll have you on report."
"Sir, I'm due to go out for exercise in five minutes."
"Well, you'd better hurry up then, hadn't you?" He stepped back into the cell and lowered his voice again.
"I'm on your case, Wade. You and me are going to be seeing a lot of each other from now on. I'm planning on making your life very interesting. You've just arrived. There's time."
Nikki watched him go, then turned resignedly to clear up the mess.
Helen sat nervously in a coffee shop near Charing Cross and wished that she'd accepted Trisha's offer to come along for a bit of moral support. She'd gradually lost touch with Sally Anne Howe after Nikki's release and she was unsure as to why the other woman had decided to get in touch. Helen wouldn't have accepted the invitation but since Nikki's conviction she had noticed a tendency to sit at home and brood. She was making it a personal rule to get out as much as possible.
The ex police woman came hurrying in and made her apologies for being late. She was smartly dressed in a cream business suit with a sheaf of papers under one arm, her dark hair neatly braided. Helen, who had come out in her jeans and a shirt, felt underdressed by comparison.
They ordered their drinks then sat, looking at each other.
"I suppose you wondered why I wanted to meet you," Sally Anne Howe said finally.
"It was a bit out of the blue," Helen agreed.
"It's about Nikki."
"Everything is, these days."
"I wondered if you'd let me have a look at the evidence."
"I'm a trained copper and I was a good one. There may have been lines of enquiry that were missed, things that were overlooked. I might be able to help."
"Why? Why are you wanting to help?"
"She killed the man who raped me. Indirectly, she gave me my life back. After she was released I realised that I didn't have to accept what had happened. If I could get the courage together to stand up in court and tell everyone what he did to me, then anything else was easy."
She shrugged. "That's why it has to be this month. I've applied for reinstatement with the police and been accepted. As of three weeks' time I'm back in service. I can't help you then - it'd be a conflict of interest. But I can do it before then."
"What if you don't find anything?"
"I might not. But a fresh pair of eyes has got to be a good thing."
"All right," Helen said, "I'll get in touch with Claire, she's Nikki's solicitor, and arrange for us to go over the files. We haven't got anything to lose."
"The leave to appeal's been turned down, then?"
"Thought that might happen. Does Nikki know?"
"Claire will tell her on her next scheduled visit."
They shared a moment of silence. Helen could see the other woman carefully not asking the questions she wanted to. Finally, Sally Anne Howe stood up. "I'll be in touch."
She left, walking fast and confidently, leaving Helen alone with her troubled thoughts.
Sally Anne Howe tapped the paper under her hand thoughtfully.
"So Jim Fenner gets door stepped by these reporters and tells them where they can stick it. One of them gets a photo of his kids, which sends Jim right off the edge. The fact it's close to Xmas probably doesn't help. Always an emotional time for the divorced. He goes to the local Working Men's Club where he meets an old mate, Charlie Higgs."
She and Helen were in one of the basement rooms of Claire's practice. The boxes of paper the trial had generated were standing on the floor, lids gaping open. Most of the contents were spread across the conference table between her and Helen.
"And Charlie Higgs is the sole witness to what happened next," Helen confirmed, "there are plenty of people who saw Fenner drinking for most of that afternoon. Some of them even overheard what he was saying about Nikki."
"He blames her for the door stepping. Because of the stuff she's been saying in interviews. Even though she never named names."
"I expect they got his name from some of his good friends at the Prison Officer's Club," Helen said bitterly, "it's been done before."
Sally Anne Howe took a sip of coffee, grimaced as she realised it was cold, then swallowed it anyway.
"Fenner decides he wants to have it out with Nikki, realises he's over the limit and asks Higgs to chauffeur him. Higgs agrees, even though he's probably unsafe to drive himself. They come round to your place. Do you know how Fenner found out Nikki was staying there?"
"I don't think it matters," Helen said, "maybe it was me he wanted to talk to."
"Unless we get a working Ouija board we're never going to know. Higgs waits in the car. He sees Fenner go round to the back of the flat. Then he hears the sounds of a struggle."
"And called the police," Helen said, "shortly before I arrived back from my run, went into the house and found Nikki unconscious on the hall floor. Luckily the ambulance arrived first and they got her to hospital before she could be arrested."
"But Jim Fenner didn't need the ambulance, because he was already dead."
"That's right. With a stab wound in his throat and Nikki's fingerprints on the knife."
"Why was she holding a knife?" Sally Anne Howe asked.
Helen laughed weakly. "She was going to make fruit salad for our breakfast. She loved cooking. She hadn't had the chance for so long ..."
"What motive did the prosecution suggest Nikki had for stabbing Jim Fenner?"
"Just that she hated him. They had a parade of witnesses from the prison. There'd been an incident that he'd told another officer about, where she'd threatened him."
Helen's voice was almost inaudible.
"Cutting his throat."
"When they asked Nikki about that, on the witness stand, she said she'd been angry with him. They asked her why and she said 'because he was a bastard.' I remember the way the jury reacted. That was what really finished her. That answer."
"That and the similar fact evidence," Sally Anne Howe said. "Why did she originally threaten Fenner?"
Helen looked at the table, tight lipped. "He'd sexually assaulted me."
"Did you make an official complaint?"
"Yes. But it was lost in the system, or made to vanish. I was willing to testify to what had happened, but the defence team thought it would be counter productive. They felt that all it would do was demonstrate that Nikki did have a good motive to hurt Fenner and look like we were trying to blacken his character. They said the jury were against her already."
"Which turned out to be true. And according to Higgs the only reason Fenner gave for coming to your house was to 'have a little talk' with Nikki."
"That's right. The jury didn't know Fenner. They didn't know what he was capable of. They took that statement at face value."
"And because of the concussion Nikki couldn't remember what had happened, so her legal team couldn't mount an effective defence."
"Nothing but a mess, from start to finish," Helen said emphatically.
"Well, I'd like to start with our Mr. Higgs. He's the key. If we can find a bit more detail about his story we might be able to get somewhere."
"Something about this statement. It doesn't quite add up." Sally Anne got briskly to her feet. "If there's anything there, I'll find it. Don't worry. I won't let you down."
Sally Anne watched Higgs for a couple of days, getting the hang of his routine and talking to his neighbours and acquaintances. It was surprisingly easy, considering that she didn't have a warrant card. Most people just liked to show off their knowledge. Sometimes she'd get to the end of a conversation before they stopped themselves and remembered to ask who she was and why she was asking about Charlie. Her bland answer that she was an investigator would usually satisfy them; if they asked for more information she simply said that she was looking into the Nikki Wade trial, which was the truth. At that point they'd assume she was a free lance journalist and lose interest.
By the time she approached him in the launderette she already had a good idea of how things were going for Charlie. That was fine with her. She liked to be prepared.
Higgs had just finished feeding coins into the washing machine when she came in, carrying two coffees. She sat down on the bench against the wall next to his paper and holdall and waited. He turned and did a double take. "Sorry, love, I was sitting there."
"I know. Coffee?"
She held out the styrofoam cup to him and he took it dubiously. He was looking the worse for wear, unshaven, bleary eyed and probably hung-over. Sally Anne thought he might be wearing the clothes he had been out drinking in the night before. He certainly smelt of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. His receding brown hair was tousled, as though he'd got out of bed and not bothered to comb it before coming out.
She smiled at him and took the packets of sugar and cartons of milk out of her pocket. "I didn't know how you liked it, so I brought these."
"Milk, no sugar. Thanks."
The next couple of minutes were occupied with the little ritual of preparing the drinks and finding somewhere to dispose of the empty packets and milk containers. In the end Higgs took them to a rubbish bin in the street outside. When he came back he cleared his throat awkwardly.
"I don't mean to be rude, love, but I don't usually get strange birds bringing me coffee in a morning. Who are you?"
"Sally Anne Howe. Investigating the Nikki Wade case."
"Oh, that." He looked shifty and took a drink. Sally Anne waited him out.
"So what d'you want to know?"
Sally Anne pulled out her main prop, a reporter's notepad. People made all sorts of assumptions based on it. The important thing was that it wasn't a police pocket notebook.
"You were the main witness, right?"
"I'd like you to take me through what you saw."
Higgs glanced round, then pulled up one of the battered plastic chairs from near the window and settled down to talk to her.
"What's in it for me?"
"Nothing, at the moment." She shrugged in response to his look.
"I'm a freelance. Sometimes something comes of it. Sometimes not."
"Right. Mind you, I don't know if I'd be happy making money off this. Me and Jim Fenner, we were good mates. The best. He didn't deserve what happened to him."
"It must be hard."
"Knowing you took him to his death."
Higgs looked briefly defensive.
"Yeah, but I didn't know, did I? He'd been in the prison service fourteen, fifteen years. He could handle himself."
"Or so you thought. Trouble is, a knife ..."
"Tell me about it. I'll never forget what I saw. Not till the day I die."
"There's some things I don't understand."
"You don't get everything from newspaper stories. How did you come to see anything? Was the kitchen at the front of the house?"
"No. The back. Why?"
"But you drove him there. Could you see through the windows from the road?" Sally Anne Howe asked.
"No. I got there and I realised I'd run out of fags. So I went to the shop. When I came back I heard the sounds of an argument. Jim's voice and some woman shouting at him."
"Yeah. So I goes round the back to have a shufti, don't I? I get there just in time to see what happens to Jim."
He was well into the story now, absorbed in it. Sally Anne watched his eyes and body language, trying to work out if he was telling the truth. She knew she was on a cold trail; he'd told this story so many times, in court and elsewhere, that he would be able to do it convincingly, even if he was lying.
"He's arguing with some tall, dark bird."
"How did he get into the kitchen?"
"The French windows were open. He walked straight in."
"I see. You say 'arguing' Do you mean with words, pushing, shoving, what?"
"I mean nose to nose screaming at each other. They were calling each other every name under the sun. The air was blue. I'm surprised the police didn't get called earlier than they did. But it was the middle of the morning. Nobody around."
Sally Anne nodded, pretending to take notes. "So what happened next?" she prompted.
"She picked up a knife."
"You're sure about that?"
"Yeah! She picked up the knife."
"What had Jim done just before she did that?"
"He was pointing. He poked her in the shoulder with his finger. She just seemed to lose it." Higgs glanced at her. Sally Ann carefully kept her face neutral. She nodded encouragingly.
"So Jim sees the knife and he tries to take it off her," Charlie said.
"Why d'you think that didn't work?"
"He was taller and stronger than her. He was an experienced prison officer. Used to manhandling people. Using his strength."
"Well, he had had a drink that day. Several. And she was like a bloody maniac. She was scary. She was a murderer, you know. She'd already killed somebody."
"I knew she had a record."
"They struggled for a bit. That's when Jim hit her. I think he was desperate by then. She wasn't giving up. She meant to hurt him. Cut him up proper."
Sally Anne visualised this account being given to a jury and gained a better appreciation of why Nikki had been convicted. Charlie was a good storyteller, a convincing witness. Whether he was lying or not, his evidence would have dammed Nikki in the jury's eyes.
"When Jim Fenner hit her, did he do it with his open hand or with his clenched fist?"
"Fist. The cow was tough. I'll give her that. She nearly went down, but she stood up again. And that's when she stabbed him. Bang. In the throat. Blood everywhere."
"And you called the police."
"Yeah. I wasn't going to take her on myself."
"But she must have been dazed by then. She passed out soon afterwards."
"It was a good punch. And I think he might have got another one or two in. It's all a bit of a blur, to be honest."
"So he goes down."
"Clutching his throat."
"And she staggers out of the kitchen."
"Out of sight." Charlie said, nodding.
"Did you see what happened to the knife?"
"It was in Jim, wasn't it? Poor bastard never stood a chance."
"Then you went round to the front of the house and waited for the police."
"Yeah. But the ambulance turned up first and they took Wade straight out. Some other bird was there. She stayed and talked to the police. The rest you know."
"Does it bother you?"
"That you sent someone to prison?"
He looked into his empty cup, then shrugged. "No. She killed Jim. She deserved everything she got. I hope she rots there for the rest of her life. In fact I think they should bring the death penalty back for people who kill police officers and prison officers. That dyke bitch killed one man and got away with it, so she thought she could do it again."
"I see. Well, thanks for your time, Mr. Higgs." Sally Anne stood up. "I'll be in touch if I need to speak to you again."
"Oh, OK," Charlie said, a bit disconcerted, "well, you know where I am."
As Sally Anne left the launderette she could see him turning to the sports page of the paper, without a care in the world. She shivered. Mr. Average, the London edition. She'd be meeting a lot more people like that when she got back onto the force. She wasn't looking forward to it.
Claire stopped dead in the interview room door as she got her first look at Nikki. "What happened to you?!"
Nikki shrugged, then winced as her ribs protested the movement. "What does it look like? I met a size ten boot coming the other way."
Claire reached out to touch the bruising on her face and Nikki put up a warning hand. Claire took the hint and sat down unhappily.
"What's happened to the bastard who did this?"
"He's already resigned."
"What!? He should be on assault charges!"
"It means he's out of the system."
"What good does that do?"
"He's not picking on me any more. And it sends a message out to the other members of the Jim Fenner fan club. Something'll get done if they try the same thing."
"Nikki .... They should be calling the police."
"It's a con's word against a screw's! They'd close ranks."
"With evidence like that bruising!?"
"What about my leave to appeal?" Nikki interrupted.
"Subtle," Claire commented.
"If I'm not in here, this sort of thing can't happen. So give."
She saw the answer in Claire's face and folded her arms carefully. She cleared her throat.
"Did they say why?"
"Not in the public interest. No reasonable grounds on which the conviction can be challenged."
"We'll fight it, Nikki. I promise you that."
"Do what you want. I'm not going anywhere. Not on a whole life tariff." She shrugged. "I knew they wouldn't let me appeal as soon as I found out about that."
"You mustn't give up!"
"Easy for you to say." Nikki stood and turned away from Claire, her shoulders hunched. After a moment, she cleared her throat.
"Managing. Working too hard. How do you think, Nikki?"
"I don't. I can't afford to. Not in here."
"She'd come and see you. She'd write, if you'd let her."
"For a while," Nikki said, turning back and sitting down. "So what happens next?"
"We review the evidence. We've already got somebody doing that. We start campaigning. If we can establish reasonable doubt, we might be able to get your sentence quashed or your tariff downgraded."
"Yeah, you might swing it for me to get out of here in ten, fifteen years, instead of twenty five."
Claire frowned. Nikki's voice was as hopeless as she had ever heard it.
"You have to be strong. You've got good people working for you."
"I know that," Nikki said. She smiled briefly, a gesture. "But in here, it's just me and the screws."
"Are you going to be all right?"
"I'll be fine," Nikki said tightly, "done it before. Piece of cake."
"Really? Then why does your face look the way it does?"
"Because I wasn't expecting it. Because I was trying to keep my head down and my nose clean, like Helen always told me to. Well, that's going to change. If I haven't got an appeal to look forward to, I'm going to make sure I take a piece of the next bastard who tries something like this."
"Nikki, if you fight them head on, you'll be the one who loses!"
"You have to choose your battles. That's all. Got any fags?"
"I thought you were going to give up?"
"Doesn't seem much point, now, does there?"
Claire nodded and took a packet of cigarettes out of her briefcase. She handed them over and watched as Nikki lit up, taking a deep drag and then flinching as the smoke hit her damaged lip.
"Trisha said you'd need those."
"Girl's not stupid. One more thing."
"You don't tell her about this. Or Helen."
"I can't not," Claire protested.
"No. Because they'd worry. And they can't do anything." Nikki leaned across the table. "Promise, Claire. Please."
"What about you?"
Nikki leant back again. She crossed her arms. "Nothing. I have to front up, that's all. I'll manage. I have before."
Claire thought about it. "If I agree, I am still making a formal protest to the Governor."
"What good will that do?"
"Just in case it happens again."
Nikki considered it, blowing smoke idly into the air, then nodded. "OK. That makes sense. But not a word to anyone else, right?"
Claire nodded. "I promise. Not to anyone."
It was the same café they had met in before. This time Sally Anne had got there first. She was reading the Evening Standard as Helen came through the door, the pages turned to the editorial section. She looked up and caught Helen's eye, frowning. Helen stopped, just for a couple of seconds. Enough to irritate the harassed commuter who was trying to come in through the door after her.
"Watch out, you dozy cow!"
"Shut up," Helen said viciously, shocking the man, who obviously hadn't expected her to respond so forcefully. He glared but backed off, going to get himself a coffee and ostentatiously choosing a table that was as far away from her as possible.
Helen sat down across from Sally Anne. "Well?"
"No luck," Sally Anne said honestly, "I found Higgs, I talked to him, I went over all of the papers with a fine tooth comb. Nothing."
"Was there anything you couldn't look at?"
"I didn't find Higgs' ex wife."
"Was that important?" Helen asked.
"No. It might have helped me get a better feel for things that's all, with him and Fenner both being members of the 'Bitter Divorced Ex Husband club'. Some of the evidence doesn't add up."
She started to tick points off on her fingers. "No defence wounds on Fenner's hands, the fact that some of his fingerprints were under the blood on the knife handle and the fact that Nikki's bruising was a bit too extensive to match Higgs' witness statement."
"But all of those things were brought forward at the trial and considered by the jury."
"Exactly. They're not sufficiently strong factors to base an appeal on. I'm sorry, Helen. I wish I could have done more. Especially since the twin towers, it's all about terrorism. Cold cases aren't high priority"
"You did your best and you didn't have to volunteer in the first place," Helen reassured her, "in a way it's good. It clears the decks. Means that we can focus our efforts where they'll be the most use."
"I still feel like I let you down. If you find any other new evidence, or I can help you in any way, don't hesitate to get in touch."
Helen nodded and stood to shake the police woman's hand as she left. Then she almost ran out of the café for a fast walk along the Thames, striding past tourists and office workers as she fought hard to suppress her anger.
Helen was so absorbed in the journal article she was reading that the knock at her office door came as a total surprise. She blinked and looked up, belatedly realising that it was early evening and she was still at work.
Mitchell, her new boss, came in. He squinted into the deepening gloom of the office and turned on the main light. Helen had been working with just a desk lamp, which she had absent mindedly turned on when the rain and the failing light had made it hard to see the print. She sat back, stretching out her shoulders and reached for her cup of coffee, scowling when she realised it was empty.
Mitchell smiled easily at her, the gold tooth in one corner of his mouth glinting in the light. His dreadlocks were swept back and tied; he was wearing a tracksuit instead of his usual suit.
"I was heading out to play football and I saw the light," he commented.
"I must have lost track of the time," Helen said carefully. From what she'd seen of Mitchell so far, she liked him. He was tough and an impressive negotiator but very, very fair. However, she didn't particularly want to have this conversation.
"Weren't you the first person in here this morning?"
"I'm not sure," Helen temporised, firmly banishing the memory of opening the building up to the back of her mind.
Mitchell nodded thoughtfully, then reached across and turned off the desk lamp. "Come on, let's lock up."
"Health and safety, Helen. This isn't the best part of London after dark."
"I can take care of myself!"
"I know that, but I don't want to leave you in the building on your own. And if you're too tired to drive you could have an accident on the way home."
Helen shrugged abruptly, aware that she was developing a headache. She gathered her papers together and put them into her briefcase before standing up.
"All right, happy now?"
"Not quite. I need you to make an appointment with my secretary tomorrow."
"We need to discuss your workload and when you're taking your next holiday."
"There's nothing wrong with my performance," Helen said, tight-lipped.
"No there isn't. You're a valuable worker. I'm very impressed with what you get done. But you're overloading yourself and you will burn out if you go on like this. You've been here six months and you still work as if you're proving yourself."
Helen bit back her immediate, childish response. Mitchell seemed to sense it anyway. He sighed. "I know I can't stop you working. I know you're going to read that article at home and come in first thing tomorrow."
"I have to. I've got to prepare for the project meeting about the prison story-telling initiative," Helen protested.
Mitchell nodded. "Yes, and I know it's one of your personal babies. But I want you to schedule that appointment with me. I need to discuss how we can support you if insist on continuing to drive yourself like this. The organisation does have a duty of care, you know. I've seen it before. Good people who just collapse one day because they've been trying to do too much. I want to stop it with you before it becomes a habit. Well, more of a habit than it already is. I believe that you might find that less is more."
He glanced at his watch. "We have to go, I'm going to be late."
"You play at the leisure centre, don't you?" Helen asked.
"It's on my way. I'll drive you. If you trust my driving."
"You haven't seen how my wife drives," Mitchell said wryly, "after you."
In the car, as he was belting up, Mitchell cleared his throat. "Your name came up, before I took the job. One of those parties where everyone's from work."
"Oh?" Helen said lightly, indicating and moving into the traffic.
"Somebody said you'd lost someone close. Just before you started this job. I wondered how you'd be with Christmas coming up."
Helen concentrated on the next junction. Both the articles tonight, she decided. And maybe some work on her next assignment. It wasn't as if she was going to be able to sleep till the small hours. "Let's just say I've got a personal interest in reforming the system and leave it at that, shall we?"
Smoothing his tie nervously, Adam Gates, the Governor of C wing at Southwold women's prison, waited in his office for his new consultant. Not that he expected her to be difficult - he was doing her a favour by allowing her to run her new programme in his jail. She represented an non governmental organisation and had no right to be there without his agreement. But the woman did have a formidable reputation and he had heard impressive stories about her single mindedness and ability to get things done. Her kindest critics called her 'driven'. Those who didn't like her said she was a ball-breaking bitch who ruthlessly played politics to achieve her aims.
The fact that Adam approved of most of the initiatives she had piloted across the area's estate in the six months since she had started her consultancy, did not mean that he wasn't wary about allowing her onto his turf. Still, he personally knew of inmates who had been helped by the innovative employment programmes for women on short sentences she'd brought in, despite tabloid criticism. He also believed that the befriending training she had introduced, which was aimed at supporting those prisoners with mental health and substance abuse problems, had indirectly saved several lives.
He distantly remembered coming into the Prison Service as a starry-eyed graduate, determined to single handedly solve the problems of the world. Perhaps because of that, he still felt the need to back anything that made his role be about more than managing a warehouse for the people, and problems, that society didn't want to face up to. Even if it meant going elsewhere for effective ideas.
He smiled inwardly, unaware that it was reflected on his mobile, expressive face and shook his head. 'Just remember that it is your turf' he reminded himself. 'She can't do anything without your say so' Leaning back, he glanced at his watch, and wondered if he had enough time to check his post. He was distracted by a sharp rap at the door and saw two silhouettes through the frosted glass. His consultant was five minutes early.
"Come in, please."
As he stood up, holding out his hand, he assessed the new arrival. He'd expected some kind of grim faced Amazon and was disconcerted to find himself facing a dark, attractive woman with vivid hazel eyes. She was wearing the standard power suit, but he noticed that her footwear was severely practical, flat heeled and comfortable. Somebody used to walking a wing. Even so, she was dressed for a business meeting. Her clothes and make-up were immaculate, her jewellery elegant and understated. She had a slim executive briefcase and as she shook his hand he noticed that her nails were short and painted with clear polish.
"Ms. Stewart, welcome to C wing at Southwold."
"Call me Helen, please. It's good to be here."
Nevertheless, he caught the flash of genuine pleasure in her eyes when he gave her the correct title and realised that before he'd said it her smile hadn't reached her eyes at all. The awareness made him re-evaluate her quickly and he saw, for the first time, the frown lines that long suppressed strain had left on her forehead, the tension in her posture. All perfectly under control, hidden behind the veneer of an unremarkable bureaucrat. Adam Gates gestured at the chair in front of his desk and resolved to be careful with this woman. He had a sense that there were hidden depths he might not want to plumb here.
Searching for a conversational gambit, he picked up on her last comment. "Haven't you ever been to Southwold?"
Helen shook her head. "No. It's been a while since I was in any kind of prison."
"Well, yes," Gates said, slightly disconcerted, "but you were on staff at Larkhall, weren't you?"
Helen looked him straight in the face. "Is my history going to be a problem?"
There was something about the way she made that comment that made Adam uneasy. 'Depths and reefs' he thought. This was a woman who said nothing without a reason. He decided that, since she was prepared to talk about it, it would be more sensible to get the matter out in the open.
"Not as far as I'm concerned. It's not your fault that you got taken in by a plausible ex-con."
"Some people might say that it throws doubt on my judgement."
"They'd be people who've never made a mistake," Adam said firmly, "it happened in your house, didn't it?"
"My kitchen, to be exact," Helen said quietly. She looked him straight in the eye and Adam could see how carefully she was watching his reaction.
"I should be open with you," she said, "I still don't believe Nikki Wade is guilty. I think it was self defence."
"That's what she said at her trial, wasn't it?"
"Well, it might be true," Adam said diplomatically. He shrugged. "Since she's not in this institution, I don't see it as a problem."
Helen nodded. Adam smiled, glad that they'd got the subject out of the way.
"After the conviction I decided that I would be better placed outside the Home Office, in policy-making, research," she said, "to be honest, I've deliberately stayed away from anything hands-on in an actual prison ever since."
"Must have been hard after working in one."
"That part of my life was over," Helen said firmly. Her tone of voice indicated that that was all she was planning to say on the subject.
Adam noticed that she was seemingly calm and indifferent, her hands folded. The set of her jaw told a different story. Adam supposed it must be embarrassing for a high-flyer like Helen Stewart to admit to failing at anything, even the attempted rehabilitation of a lifer. He watched as she glanced out of the window.
"Do you foresee any problems in introducing the Drugs Free project at Southwold?" she asked.
"Not with most of the staff. They've all seen the effect drugs have. A lot of the women wouldn't be in here without them."
The use of the word 'women' got him another point, he noticed.
"Not even the old style 'lock them up and throw away the key' officers?"
Adam decided to grasp the nettle. "People like Jim Fenner?"
"That's who I had in mind."
"The POs don't know your project's being trialled here yet. To be honest, I haven't told them much about what's going to happen. I wanted us to discuss the concept properly first, get a few practical matters worked out and then, maybe, do a joint presentation to the staff."
Helen nodded thoughtfully. "Present a united front."
"More or less."
"If we can get the majority of them on side we'll stand a better chance," she agreed.
She opened her briefcase and dug out a handful of folders. "I've got some more detailed specifications for you to look over. So that you can work out those practical matters you talked about."
"I thought that had all been settled."
"In theory," Helen said, "but while I know my own project, I don't know your prison or your inmates. I'm sure you'll have some useful suggestions."
The anniversaries passed slowly at first, then more quickly as she learned to tolerate the pain. Nikki's birthday, the anniversary of the day they had first met, the date she had come out to Nikki and herself in a noisy London street, the first time they had made love, their first Christmas .... Some others were worse because they should have been anniversaries, but weren't; the first year, counted from Nikki's release on appeal, was especially bad.
There were other reminders - brochures about the Caribbean reminded her of the romantic holiday she'd been planning for them just before Nikki's arrest for Fenner's death; she would never be able to watch some films again because she had seen them for the first time with Nikki. Some, like the date of the second verdict, she refused to acknowledge and got through by sheer bloody-minded determination and distracting herself with work. She was conscious that at those times Trisha and Claire tended to call her more often; to almost insist that she spent time with them. She was grateful. It was too easy to brood.
"Right," Nikki said to the group of girls staring at her. They didn't look so hard or so organised now that their leader was choking on her own teeth on the bathroom floor. She recognised the glazed look of shock from other, similar, encounters. They hadn't expected someone they saw as an old woman to react that fast or viciously.
Contemptuously, Nikki palmed the shiv and made it vanish. She could tell from the uneasy shifting amongst the gang members that they weren't sure where she had it. Hours of practice in her cell after lock-up were paying off. Nikki looked them all over, making eye contact, watching their eyes drop one by one. "Anyone else up for it?"
She looked round again, administered another solid kick to the groaning body at her feet and sneered as the girl cried out sharply.
"Think that might have been a rib. You'd better get her some help. You are supposed to be her mates, aren't you?"
A couple of the less intimidated followers edged forward and helped the injured woman up. She gave the group a count of twenty and made sure she got rid of the knife before she locked herself away and allowed herself to shake in the flimsy privacy of the toilet cubicle. By the time she came out of the bathroom, strolling down the wing with damp hair, she was totally composed.
Helen was standing at the edge of the conference room, white wine in hand, allowing herself her personal ration of five minutes' solitude for every hour of networking, when a voice called her name. She blinked and turned around, to be confronted with a familiar, dark face. Thomas Waugh had worn well; his brown hair was still thick and unruly and his face, with its slightly hang-dog expression, had grown more laughter lines since they had last seen each other. The reason why showed when he grinned in unabashed pleasure. "Helen! It is you!"
"As you see," Helen said tautly, thrown off balance. She took a gulp of wine and glanced around the room, seeking an escape route. Thomas must have sensed her intention; he stepped in closer and put his hand on her arm.
"Helen, is me being here a problem for you?"
"No. It's just ...." Helen shook her head and found, to her amazement, that she was blushing. "After the way we parted ..."
"Oh, that ... well ..." He hunched his shoulders. "Let's make it up to each other?"
"Nothing big. Don't run away. Have a drink with me. Tell me what's been happening with you."
"Oh, that's a long story."
Thomas's face tightened. "And not a happy one, by the sound of it. Seriously, Helen, d'you have time? I'd love to catch up. But I appreciate, in your position ..."
"What position would that be?" Helen snapped and then could have bitten her own tongue off at the expression on his face. He had made a perfectly reasonable comment and she had reacted by tearing his head off. She held up her hand.
"Look, Thomas, please ... let's start again. I'm sorry. I've had a long, hard month, and ...."
"Don't apologise," he said easily, "I have some idea how busy you are. I keep up with publications in the field."
"Och, that ...."
"And when I said 'position', I meant as co coordinator of the conference. Pretty impressive."
"Oh, yes, you know you've made it when they start letting you try and do the negotiating in three different languages. And the politics ... they just multiply, exponentially. It's a lot of fun."
"Which is why you've got that look on your face. Come on, Helen, you can play hooky for one night, can't you?"
"What you going to do? Take me to the dog track?"
"Don't know if there are any round here. How about the terrace? Acceptable compromise?"
"Not bad," Helen conceded, smiling. Her awkwardness was dissolving rapidly as she dropped back into the pattern of banter with him. This was a good man. She remembered that much.
She shivered as another memory intruded. 'He's everything I could want in a man. But I want a woman.' her younger self had said. So hopeful, so unaware of what was waiting around the corner. Helen closed her eyes briefly and opened them to see Thomas looking at her, full of concern.
"I will be, once we get out of here."
"Sparkling water, please."
"Really? Who's tamed the wild woman?"
She shook her head. "I just ... don't drink much these days."
"Fine," Thomas said easily, "I'll meet you out there."
In the event Helen saw one or two people she had to speak to on the way across the room and she didn't get out onto the terrace for half an hour. She found Thomas huddled inside his coat, watching the shipping on the Thames. Helen's drink sat on the bench beside him, ice cubes melting into the sparkling water.
"Thomas, I'm so sorry. I ...."
"Don't worry." He shrugged easily. "I looked in, saw you collecting the last couple of scalps and decided to appreciate the view while I waited."
Helen followed his gaze down the river to the floodlit Tower of London and took the opportunity to study the whole cityscape, the refurbished buildings in the old Docklands on the opposite bank contrasting with the concrete blockhouse architecture of the hotel they were in. The riverside walks were busy with strollers and Helen could see people leaning on the railings of the moored pleasure boats, holding drinks and chatting. "It's a good view."
"Specially at night. How have you been, Helen?"
"Well enough," Helen said. She covered the small lie by picking up her glass of water and taking a long swallow.
"Really?" Thomas said. He leaned next to her on the railing, turning those perceptive eyes back to the landscape in front of them. Helen took a moment to appreciate the respite. He wasn't looking at her for his next question.
"Still seeing Nikki Wade?"
"No," Helen said, only becoming aware as the words came out of the tones of regret and sorrow in her voice. Thomas looked at her sharply and Helen focused on his hands. No ring on the long fingers. She waited for the next question. Instead Thomas sighed and turned to her.
"But you never stop thinking about her, do you?"
The truth of it caught Helen by surprise. She took refuge in humour. "You're making me sound obsessed, Doctor Waugh. I resent that."
"Not obsessed," Thomas said. He paused uncomfortably. "I read about the Jim Fenner case."
"I was afraid for you. Especially with the statement you'd shown me, about the assault. I thought you might end up in the dock."
"Motive and opportunity. It was your flat," Thomas said, "but I should have known Nikki would never let you down."
"Wait a minute!" Helen said. "Are you saying that you think I killed Jim Fenner?"
"No," Thomas said, "I know you, Helen. I don't think you're capable of it."
Helen shrugged and kept her thoughts to herself. She had long ago come to terms with the fact that the one person she believed she might be able to kill was Fenner. It was not a discussion she ever planned to have aloud. "So you believe Nikki Wade did it?"
"I didn't say that."
"Good," Helen said, the fight abruptly going out of her, "because then we'd have to have words, you and me."
"I know," Thomas said, "why aren't you seeing her, Helen? You obviously still love her."
Helen became abruptly aware of how fragile her control was and turned quickly away. Looking around frantically, she spotted an exit into the hotel on the next level down and headed for the stairs at a near run. Thomas swore under his breath and followed her, his longer legs easily keeping pace as she barrelled past a couple of startled waiters in the corridor and found the nearest lift. He tried again in the lift.
She punched blindly at the buttons for her floor, aware that her vision was actually graying out now as it all overwhelmed her. She got as far as her room door before misery overcame her. Thomas watched as she broke down into huge, gasping, sobs. Glancing up and down the corridor, he took the key card out of her hand and let them both in. Once inside he guided her gently to the bed and helped her to sit down, before settling beside her.
"So my guess was right, then? You do still love her."
"Love her and want her and need her," Helen choked out.
Thomas put his hand on her shoulder and it was not stifling or too much. It was the simple reassurance offered by a good friend, that they'd be there for you. Helen reached out and clung to his lapels, her face buried into his chest to muffle her tears. Finally, she drew away, her voice anguished.
"She told me to leave her alone and I had to respect that. It was her wish. D'you know what it's like to love someone and at the same time to know they're suffering in a dreadful place where you can't go, where you can't help them, where nothing you can do can improve their lot? It's purgatory, Thomas. It's ...."
She broke down again, then, unable to speak. Eventually, her tears began to run dry. She sagged against him, exhausted, as he produced a handkerchief and handed it to her. She dabbed at her eyes.
"Christ, my make-up's ruined."
"Don't worry. I think the party's breaking up anyway. If not, it'll enhance my lady killer reputation, won't it?"
Helen took a deep breath, reaching for her sense of humour. She raised her eyebrows.
"You've got a 'lady killer' reputation?"
"You'd be surprised. After all, I've managed to reduce the well known Ms. Stewart to tears."
"Well done, I suppose," Helen said quietly.
"Not really. That's been coming a long time, hasn't it?"
"Oh, I break out in tears every now and again. Good for the soul."
Thomas made one of his half noises, then got up and ordered a pot of tea from room service. When it arrived he poured Helen a large mug. She frowned as he added a couple of spoonfuls of sugar. "I don't ...."
"Drink it. You're in shock."
She took the mug from him and sipped it mutinously, though she couldn't help taking comfort from the warmth of the tea between her hands. He took his own drink and sat down opposite her. "How long have you been carrying this on your own?"
"I'm not on my own. Claire and Trisha have been working with me to try and clear her name."
"Put it another way. How long since you saw her?"
"One year, three weeks and ... four days," Helen said, then shrugged uncomfortably, "OK, maybe I am a little obsessed."
"Are you sure she won't see you?"
"Certain. Claire goes to visit her to talk about legal stuff. She drops it into the conversation from time to time. Nikki always insists I stay away." She shrugged. "I get photos sometimes."
"Has she given a reason?"
"Her 'Dear Jane' letter said that she couldn't ask me to wait. She said that she'd already messed up my life and she wasn't going to do it any more. Told me to move on and forget about her."
"When did she write you this letter?"
"Just after her conviction." Helen shook her head. "I keep hoping she'll change her mind. But she never has."
"And it's unlikely she will at this stage," Thomas said thoughtfully, "I'm so, so sorry, Helen. After everything you two went through ...."
Helen raised her eyebrows at him.
"What?" Thomas asked.
"You're being very magnanimous, that's all."
"Am I supposed to feel worse because it's a woman you fell for? Doesn't work like that."
"It does for most men."
"Maybe, but I'm not most men."
"That's right," she conceded.
"I just think she's a very lucky woman and she's an idiot not to appreciate what she has."
"Hey," Helen said lightly, "that's my wifie you're talking about."
Thomas blinked, puzzled. Helen smiled. "Scots for 'woman'," she clarified.
"Oh. Maybe you should force her hand. Just visit her. There must be a way." He paused. "Where is she? One of the lifer's units?"
"That's part of the problem," Helen said bitterly, "you remember Nikki. She's a fighter. She's always getting into trouble. Every time there's an incident they ship her to another prison. She's been round the system like a pin ball. Everywhere except Larkhall again; I suppose they think the staff wouldn't have it. Spends half her life on the ghost train."
"That must be tough for you."
"Not half as bad as it is for her."
Thomas nodded and stood up. "I think you ought to get some sleep."
He fished around in his pocket and held out a card. "This has my mobile number on it as well. If you ever need to talk."
Helen took it and put it to one side. She could already feel the long held back tiredness overwhelming her. Thomas took the mug from her.
"One more thing."
"I know you'll be trying to get her out of there."
He held up a hand, forestalling Helen's comment. "It's all right, I don't want to know. Just ... if I can help, call me, OK? I'll ring you in a couple of weeks. We can do dinner or a drink."
"I'll look forward to that," Helen said, surprised to find that she meant it.
"What's the matter, Nikki?" Dickens asked, as she strolled over. Nikki shrugged. She quite liked the officer - the woman knew how to leave her alone and kept the orders reasonable. Something to do with being older, maybe. She was out of a different mould than Hollamby, that was for sure. Nikki almost reconsidered what was going to happen next. Almost. She had been putting up with Yvette and her gang of mates giggling moronically in the servery for about ten minutes now, while she pushed her lunch around her plate.
"Food's worse than usual," Nikki said shortly and got up.
Concerned, Dickens caught her arm. Nikki spun rapidly, as if she was on edge, and dropped her tray.
"Get your ...."
"Wade," Graves said warningly from across the room and started towards her, determined to protect his colleague. Dickens wasn't looking at him. She was staring at the floor, where the mashed potato had slipped off the plate, showing the mess of guts and maggots seething around underneath it.
"Jesus." Dickens recoiled. She went an interesting grey colour. As planned, that got everyone's attention. Nikki folded her arms, seemingly quite relaxed, making sure they got a good look.
"I think it's a dead rat from the bins. Doesn't bother me. I'm used to being served crap in here."
"Who'd do something like that?" Graves demanded, staring at the offal in disgusted fascination. Nikki shook her head. The only kind of straight man she liked. She raised her voice slightly.
"Don't know, Sir. Some people don't like me because I'm a dyke, apparently. Think it's unnatural."
"That's no excuse to try and poison your food," Dickens snapped, "get rid of it."
"It's only a practical joke, Miss. It really doesn't bother me."
"Maybe not, but ..."
Nikki shrugged. "I don't know who did it, Miss. It was on the plate when I got back. Could have been anyone."
"We'll see about that."
Dickens stormed off towards the kitchens, where Yvette and her little group of Aryan rejects were looking daggers at Nikki. Nikki didn't care. She had, audibly, not grassed on the group by word or deed. Instead she waited until all of the officers were out of earshot, then said casually over her shoulder, "Now if someone was frying my eggs in bacon fat every morning, like Balaraba here, I'd have a problem with it. If I was a Muslim."
"What?" Balaraba said. She and the other Nigerian inmates were, as usual, sitting together, chatting in a mixture of Hausa and English. "What did you say?"
Nikki leant over. "You heard me. You wouldn't recognise the smell, would you? Me, I used to work in catering. Bacon ... pig fat." She shrugged. "Our Yvette's an equal opportunities bigot."
The near riot lasted most of the morning and by the end of it both groups were on the block. Everyone left Nikki strictly alone after that, especially when they turned Yvette's ventilator off.
Nikki leaned against the wall of the shower, hands braced on the tiles, stretching her shoulder muscles as she worked the knots in her back out. She hated the way the block made her feel, mentally and physically. You could do all of the exercises you liked and the confinement would still get to you, especially when you were banged up in there for days at a time, lying on cold concrete. Nikki was due back for another seven and this was her one hot shower of the week. She was determined to make the most of it.
She had just reached for the soap when the curtain was pulled back and Hobson stepped inside the cubicle, reaching across to turn the water off. He ignored the fact that the sleeve of his uniform was now wet and looked her slowly up and down, making no secret he was doing it.
"Time's up, Wade."
"Oi! Piss off, Hobson."
"I don't think you can afford to be insolent with me, Nikki."
"Why not?" Nikki said. She stared him down, refusing to show fear.
Hobson was a pig and as a male PO he shouldn't even be in the room with her. Not that he cared. He had a certain following among some of the screws, who liked his ability to break the spirit of 'difficult' prisoners and weren't too bothered by the methods he used to do it. It was a nasty little clique, its power founded on the bullying and intimidation of both prisoners and other staff. Hobson's conflict with Nikki was because she refused to give in to either. His behaviour had been escalating for weeks now. The problem was that he was experienced and clever and without concrete evidence she had no chance of any accusations against him being listened to.
"You're on your own down there, Nikki. Troublesome prisoner, like you .... Nobody 'll believe anything you say. Especially if you cry rape against an officer."
"Look, I don't want to rain on your sodding parade," Nikki said, allowing her anger to show, "but I am a well-known dyke. Any man who touches me will have a lot of explaining to do. Everybody knows it wouldn't be my choice."
"Maybe," Hobson said, "but that would rely on forensic evidence. Fluids. If I wear a condom and you turn up with some interesting bruising ... they'll just think you've been having rough sex with one of your pervy friends on the quiet."
"You bastard!" Nikki said feelingly.
"Just think about it, Wade. Look forward to it. You never know. A real man might change your mind."
"Oh, I'm not sure. Finish up," Hobson said, "we haven't got all night. Another five minutes."
"Yes, Sir," Nikki said between her teeth. Hobson reached deliberately forward and tried to touch her breast. She dodged and he grinned.
"Just a taster. Outside, five minutes time."
Nikki waited until he had closed the door behind him, then spoke quietly before she turned the water back on. "You get that?"
Louise came out of the toilet cubicle, clutching her towel. "Look, Nikki, I don't want to grass anybody up. Even a screw."
"I'm not asking you to, you silly bitch! Just walk out of here and let him see you do it. He can put two and two together."
"What if he does it anyway?"
"Then I'll cut his balls off and feed them to him," Nikki said deliberately, "just think of yourself as an insurance policy."
Louise hesitated, then nodded and left.
"So I'm standing on this beach, deciding that I've probably misread the map because I'm not supposed to be on a beach, I'm supposed to be on a headland and then I notice that the tide's coming in ... ," Helen said. Opposite her, Denise, who she had met on her university course, almost choked on her last spoonful of dessert and leant back, laughing, at the image.
"Bleeding hell, love, how do you do it?" she asked in her broad Liverpool accent. "Why don't you learn to read a map if you must go walking alone."
"I had a mobile phone with me!" Helen protested.
"And the coast guard would have loved you. Can you pick me up off this beach. I don't know where I am. Oh, and can you hurry please, because the water's up to my arse."
Helen grinned at the tall, dark haired woman opposite her. It was Denise's appearance that had first attracted her attention. Coming late into a seminar room, she had seen what looked like a familiar figure. Her heart had clenched painfully, before the woman had turned to say something and she had seen the differences in the profile. She had avoided her for a while after that, wary of getting friendly for the wrong reasons, until the day when Denise had marched up to her and asked with stereotypical Northern bluntness whether they had a problem. When Helen had denied that they had, Denise had dragged her off for a coffee and a conversation, during which Helen gave an edited version of her reasons for staying away from her in the first place. Shortly afterwards, they'd been paired on an assignment and discovered they had a lot in common. Now, a year on, they were firm friends.
"So don't tell me, you're going on a map reading course next," Denise said.
"How did you know?" Helen asked.
"Because you're all about the qualifications, you. You'd get a qualification in breathing if you could."
"It keeps me focused," Helen protested. She looked round at the sound of a key in the front door. She knew Denise lived alone.
"Oh, that's Chris. He's come to London, where the streets are paved with gold, to look for a job. If he doesn't get a move on, he's going back home."
"Brother. Family, you know ...."
They shared a rueful look, then Denise got up to clear away the plates. Helen wandered into the living room to browse the bookshelf, glancing at her watch. She was going on to another appointment, at Chix, but had taken the opportunity to have an early dinner with Denise. She knew she wouldn't be eating or drinking later; it was a benefit for Nikki's campaign, based around a coming out party for two members of a girl band who had recently announced their relationship to the world. They were bringing a lot of their show-biz friends and had hired a well known DJ for the evening. Trisha was expecting a record crowd and with the anticipated guest list there should be a heavy press presence.
Helen planned to spend a lot of time networking and hoped to be able to interest a few more reporters in Nikki's case. With any luck, she might be able to enlist some celebrity supporters as well; anything to keep the matter in the public eye. She was glad that she was just back from her week's walking holiday. As usual, it had given her a chance to de-stress and think about things. She had a feeling that tonight would require a lot of stamina. Despite her elegant top and tailored trousers she was wearing trainers - she'd change into the killer heels when she got to the night club.
Voices drifted through from the kitchen and Helen half listened as she picked up an unfamiliar title from the shelf.
"You never said she was gorgeous!"
"Chris, behave! You've been down the pub."
"I'd have stayed home for that, even if it did mean eating your cooking."
"I'll put the coffee on. Want some?"
"Perhaps she does."
"You're not her type, Chris." Helen grinned as she recognised Denise's 'voice of strained patience', often used when describing her day at work.
"Why not? She might fancy a bit of rough."
"Chris ... she's on the other bus, OK."
"She is, all right?"
"Why, has she made a pass at you?"
"No, we're just friends. It can happen, right." Denise's accent was getting thicker as she got more exasperated. "Now go and talk to her."
Helen made a strategic retreat towards the other end of the living room and began to check her make-up in the mirror over the mantlepiece. When Chris came in she smiled at him and held out her hand, ignoring the slightly wary stare. "You must be Chris. Nice to meet you."
"Er, yeah. You known Denise long?"
"About a year. I gather you're looking for work. How's that going?"
They made slightly awkward small-talk until Denise came in with the coffee. After a quick cup Helen glanced at her watch again and got up. "Sorry, I've got to go."
"It's all right," Denise said, "can't expect you to stay if you've got a better offer."
She stood up to get Helen's coat.
"We're still on for next week, though?" Helen asked.
"Course we are. That bleeding allotment won't dig itself."
"Wouldn't miss it for the world. After all, it's a chance to wear my dungarees and Doc Martens. How could I resist?"
Chris choked on his coffee at approximately the same moment as Helen and Denise both lost it, sharing a hearty laugh in the hallway. The memory kept her warm all the way to the club, despite the autumnal chill of the evening.
The place was still half deserted when she got there. Helen walked in, nodding to the staff, and found Trisha making last minute adjustments behind the bar. The compact blonde looked around and saw Helen. "Hi!"
"Hi. How's it going? Did the leaflets arrive?"
"Yes, this morning. Here." Trisha handed one over. "What d'you think?"
"Not bad," Helen said, then looked at the photo again, "wait a minute, this is new."
"Claire got it, on her last visit."
"She looks tired."
"We don't want her looking too well, do we? That'd defeat the purpose."
"No, I suppose not," Helen said quietly.
"There are some others. I'll make sure you get copies."
"Thanks. I'd better start circulating."
Helen glanced around and then made a bee-line for a florid faced, middle aged man in a suit who was already propping up the bar. He raised a hand when he saw her. "Helen!"
Helen smiled at Bernard, who was sporting his usual bow tie, immaculately folded handkerchief and button hole. She sometimes wondered if he modelled himself on the journalists in old British films. It didn't really matter if he did, since the police officers and various denizens of the underworld he drank with in his capacity as a crime correspondent seemed to like the affectation. He was one of the first people Helen had approached about Nikki's case, back in the early days of the campaign, and he had proved an invaluable source of advice and information. He seemed to regard her as a sort of slightly wayward niece who might well grow out of her strange taste in lovers and who was fun to spend time with despite it.
"You know my dear, if I didn't understand that it would be thoroughly pointless, I might suggest to some of the beautiful women here that they should indulge their curiosity about the male sex. Emphasis on the sex."
"If you knew how clichéd that line was, Bernard, you wouldn't even think about using it," Helen said, kissing him on the cheek.
"Why not? Clichés are the bread and butter of journalism," he said, "good journalism, anyway."
"And you are incorrigible," Helen said, grinning. Somehow Bernard always cheered her up. She glanced around. "Anyway. Time to start networking."
The adjudication had not gone well. Nikki had hoped that her clean test record would count against the fact that drugs had been found in her cell. She was resigned to the screws not putting in a good word for her - she knew none of them would break ranks, especially against Hobson. What finally lit the fuse on her temper was the way the Wing Governor was reacting to her. He went through the whole thing on visible automatic pilot, barely making eye contact. She held her tongue with increasing difficulty until he was actually summing up.
"So, Nikki, what you're saying is that the drugs were planted in your cell and that you don't know where they came from. You do not use or deal drugs and you can't give us any idea of how they might have got there. Is that right?"
"Yeah. Textbook summary, in fact. Except the part where they're not even street drugs. They've been prescribed to somebody. I don't have a doctor outside."
"Thank you." He steepled his fingers and looked at her. "I won't pretend this isn't serious. As you know, we take a very hard line on drugs in the prison service. Which you have crossed. Given your particular circumstances, loss of remission, though automatic, doesn't mean a great deal. Therefore I will sentence you to the maximum available loss of privileges and you can expect to spend a considerable time in segregation. You have a right of appeal to the Governing Governor but, given your previous record, you might want to think before you exercise that option."
He paused, glancing over the paper work. Nikki held back her seething temper for a full count of twelve before giving in to it.
"Just one question."
"Sir." The screw on her left shoulder reminded her. Nikki ignored him.
"You're busy, right?"
"Of course," the Governor said.
"So why the hell did you bother to take time over this ... farce?! You could have made that decision without ever talking to me. You haven't listened to a word I've said!"
She was on her feet now, leaning over the desk, practically nose to nose with him, vaguely aware of the screws behind her moving into place.
"Get off on it, do you? Giving people some sort of false hope?"
"I bother because it's my job, even when I'm dealing with an unrepentant murderess like yourself. You all get the same chance to explain matters."
"Oh, I understand," Nikki said, coming back onto her heels and folding her arms, "God forbid you should cross the line to protect another person, in any circumstances."
The Wing Governor nodded and Nikki found both her arms taken at the elbow. She tensed, but did not resist. "Actually, Wade, that version of events only explains your first murder. Sorry, manslaughter. The second, however, was adjudged by the court to be a cold-blooded execution, hence your tariff." He looked at the officer on Nikki's right. "Escort her to the block. I'll write up the necessary paperwork."
She was taken a couple of steps before the door to the outer office opened. Nikki had the advantage of seeing through the gap before the screws did, so she knew what was coming in. Their hold had loosened as she turned, seemingly giving up and going quietly. That meant that when she stamped down hard on the instep of one guard and lunged forward, they both lost their grip. After that, it was easy to snatch the pot of hot coffee from the tray and pour it over the Governor's hands.
Curled around her bruises later, in the cold and the dark, Nikki wished on some level that she hadn't enjoyed his screams so much.
Adam waited until the end of the project review meeting before he brought the matter up. Helen was packing her briefcase when he dropped the bombshell into their conversation.
"Nikki Wade's being sent to Southwold," Adam said, "she's being brought in tonight. Bit of a problem at her last place."
"Really?" Helen asked calmly.
Adam pretended not to watch the way her hands stilled in what they were doing, then carried on, slower now in their movements. More controlled.
"Yeah. She dumped coffee on the Wing Governor's hands. He's in hospital apparently. Skin grafts."
He watched Helen Stewart absorb the news, her head down, thinking. She looked at him, her face more open and vulnerable than she probably realised. "Deliberately? She did it deliberately?"
"All the information says so. She's lucky he's decided not to press charges."
"I see. Why not?"
"He's due to retire next month. I don't think he wants to go through all the inconvenience and distress of a trial."
Helen shook her head, her face composed again. Adam stood up, moving to the bottle of whisky he kept in the filing cabinet for emergencies.
"We need to talk about this." He poured a glass and handed it to Helen, who accepted it.
"There's an obvious conflict of interest if I have dealings with her, for one thing."
"I'm glad you see it."
"In a way, I've been frightened of this since she was convicted," Helen said thoughtfully, "that we'd encounter one another, somehow, and that this ... situation would arise."
"I think I can help you with that," Adam said, taking a small sip of the harsh spirit.
"Your unit is entirely separate from the rest of the prison. That's the point. Whatever else she is, Nikki Wade is not a drug user. There's no need for you to even see her."
"That's comforting," Helen said, "what if she seeks me out? We were friends once."
"I'll take care of that," Adam said, "I'll need half an hour of your time, tomorrow."
"Yes, of course. But why are you bothering? She won't be here for long, surely?"
Adam noted the strange mixture of emotions in Helen Stewart's voice and put it aside to think about later.
"Nikki Wade has been around every institution the Home Office has and they're running out of places to put her," he said, "officially it's a twenty eight day transfer but, realistically, if we can manage her behaviour we'll be stuck with her."
"I hope that's the royal 'we'," Helen muttered quietly. Adam shrugged.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"Yes, please. And then I'd better get on. I have three more appointments today." She checked her watch. "Hang on a minute, let me make a phone call. I'd better reschedule my next meeting."
Adam rang for coffee as she did so.
"You're busy," he commented later as he poured it out.
Helen shrugged. "I always say work is the best drug."
Adam wondered about that, about what it said about her life. He knew that she wasn't as hard boiled as she liked to pretend. She had excused herself after her phone call and gone to the toilet. He suspected that she had been crying - she had reapplied her mascara before coming back into his office. There was certainly some back history there. Whatever the truth she was professional enough to put it to one side and get on with the job. Adam respected that. He hoped that he and Helen Stewart could build on their good working relationship. He had the idea that they were going to need it, if they had to deal with the likes of Nikki Wade
As she and Gates walked down to the segregation unit the next day, Helen felt sick. She had been up half the night despite her attempts to get some sleep and had been unable to face breakfast at all. At this point she was running on caffeine and adrenaline. She only hoped that the meeting wouldn't be too long. It didn't help that part of her was so eager to see Nikki again that she was almost able to overlook the circumstances. That made her feel vaguely dirty, complicit with the system that was locking up the woman she loved.
They passed through the last set of barred gates before the block. Southwold had been built at roughly the same time as Larkhall and the two prisons were very similar in many ways, right down to the oppressive brick cells in the basement that formed the punishment unit. The only real difference was the colour of the paint.
"Ready?" Adam asked.
"As I'll ever be."
"I appreciate you doing this, you know," Adam said, "you could have refused." "Hardly," Helen said, "don't worry, Adam, I know which side I'm on."
"Good," Adam said. He turned to the guard. "Any trouble out of Nikki Wade?"
"No, Sir. Bit of banging and shouting earlier but she quietened down when we ignored her."
"I see. Has she been fed?"
"They sent something down, but she didn't eat it. To be fair, it was cold by the time it got here. I wouldn't have fancied it."
"That's OK. We're not running a hotel. All the same, make sure it doesn't happen again."
"You'd better get the medical officer down to see her today. Did she get anything to drink?"
"Offer her water when you do the cell checks. Don't wait for her to ask. And make sure you document everything. Got that?"
"Good man. Her solicitor's a bloody nuisance, by all accounts. And Wade knows the rules like the back of her hand."
"Should have followed them then, shouldn't she?" the PO said cheerfully. Helen tightened her lips as nausea surged in the back of her throat. Something must have shown on her face because the guard broke off his conversation with Adam.
"You all right, Miss?"
"Just a bit light-headed, that's all. There's no air down here."
"Well, sit down, Miss."
"No," Helen grated, "let's just get this over with."
Adam nodded to the guard, who shrugged and indicated a couple of burly POs waiting further down the corridor. "Back-up if you need it."
"I doubt I will, but thank you."
"Don't mention it, Sir. Nice to see the Governor taking an interest, if you know what I mean."
"Is this it?" Adam asked, stopping outside the door furthest from the gate.
"Open her up."
"Wade! Visitors!" the turnkey shouted, opening the heavy iron door with a rattle of keys.
Nikki didn't move when they walked in. They had her in a paper suit. She lay on the thin mattress with her back turned towards them and seemed not even to realise that there was anyone else in the cell. The only sign that she was alive was the slight rise and fall of her side as she breathed.
Adam waited and then spoke without raising his voice. "Get up, Wade. I haven't got time to waste on this."
Slowly, Nikki rolled over and sat up, keeping her bare feet slightly away from the cold floor. She still hadn't looked at either of them. "I'd have thought you were used to that. Working in the prison system. Sir."
"Look at me when you talk to me, Wade."
"OK," Nikki said dismissively. Her gaze was still fixed on the far corner of the cell.
Helen watched her from the door and tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. Nikki had lost weight, going from slim to verging on gaunt. At some time since the last photograph Helen had seen, Nikki's hair had been cut closer to her skull and the dark strands had developed a dusting of silver. Her features had sharpened, becoming a refined, tempered version of the face Helen remembered. She was paler than she had been, marked by weeks inside without sunlight. As she shifted position Helen could see her arm muscles, ropy and compact, moving under her skin with no cover of fat to hide them. Helen was irresistibly reminded of photographs she had seen of refugees.
Nikki looked across at Adam and saw Helen at the same time. Her facial expression didn't change. Her skin flushed and then paled, the only visible reaction. Deliberately, she crossed her arms.
"What have we got to talk about? Sir."
"You know you're due a meeting with the Governor when you first arrive."
"I know the rules."
"You've had more drug tests than anyone I've ever come across," Adam commented.
Helen concentrated on the floor in front of her in an attempt to focus on something other than Nikki's presence, then reminded herself why she was there and looked at the other woman.
"Do you have an explanation for that?" Adam asked.
"Sure," Nikki said. Helen found herself looking straight into a stony gaze. "I get all of the 'random' drugs tests, just like I get all of the unannounced cell searches, just like if I look at a screw the wrong way, I get put on report. It's how it is, Sir. If you've killed a screw, sorry, an officer, you can expect to have a hard time."
"And that's the only reason?"
"In my opinion?"
"That's what I'm asking for."
"So you can categorically assure me that you're not on drugs?"
"I don't have to," Nikki said, "none of my piss tests came back positive. Check your records."
"No need. I'm sure that you wouldn't make a statement like that unless you knew it was true."
Helen watched as Adam paused, seeming to gather his thoughts.
"All right, Wade, this is how it's going to be," he said finally, "the fact you always test clean but you had drugs in your cell indicates to me that you might have gone into dealing."
Instantly Nikki was on her feet, practically nose to nose with him, voice raised. "They were planted, you stupid bastard. By one of your screws!"
Helen heard a noise at the door, where the men were standing watch. Adam waited calmly for Nikki to step back and fold her arms.
"Right, Wade, I'm going to overlook that outburst, because I want us to be totally clear with each other. I've read your file. I know about your habit of making trouble. I want you to understand that if you try anything like that on my wing I will find a place deeper than the block and I will bury you there. Do you hear me on this?"
"Was that a threat, Sir?" Nikki asked mockingly.
"A promise. You and I both know that most prisoners, especially lifers, get cut some slack. I'm telling you that you will held to the letter of the rules and that my officers will have my complete support in dealing with your behaviour. I will ensure they know that."
"So what you're saying is, I might as well make trouble anyway, because my card is marked before I start," Nikki sneered.
"No. I won't allow victimisation. If you keep your nose clean and stay away from any activity that contravenes prison rules, you will be fine. But if you step over the line and especially if I catch you dealing drugs, I won't do what everyone else has done and ship you on. I will manage you in-house. And we will see how that turns out."
"No. Sir," Nikki said through gritted teeth.
"Right. I'm going to leave you down here until tomorrow and I'm going to get the handbook sent down so that you can look at it. I recommend that you learn it by heart. All hundred odd pages. From now on it's your bible."
He waited, then nodded to the two guards at the door. "You can go."
Helen watched as they withdrew and listened to the sound of their boots echoing down the corridor outside. Adam waited until they were out of earshot. Nikki watched him, arms still folded, mask intact.
"OK," Adam said finally, "I asked Ms. Stewart here for a reason."
Unwillingly, Helen's and Nikki's eyes sought each other out. They both looked away quickly. Adam carried on talking, apparently unaware of the interaction. "I know you two have some past history. Ms. Stewart worked with you when you were in prison before and I believe you stayed friendly after you got out. Right up to the point where you killed somebody in her flat."
"You could say that," Nikki grated.
"I'm not interested in your past history. I'm not your friend. I'm your jailor." He looked around the cell. "As you've probably worked out by now."
"Yeah," Nikki said grimly.
"Good. Helen is a valued member of my staff, albeit a consultant. I want her project to succeed. You sabotage that, by word or deed ..."
"And you'll find somewhere deeper than the block and bury me," Nikki interrupted mockingly, "Christ, learn some new threats, why don't you?"
"I find the old ones work quite well," Adam said impassively, "they're all about consequences."
"The Drugs Free project is working. We have quite a few women who are managing to get clean. They wouldn't want it to come to an end. They would be angry with someone who spoiled their chances of recovery. To the extent where it might become quite dangerous for that person. I wouldn't recommend it."
"You think I'd wreck ... ," Nikki said heatedly.
"Nikki," Helen said softly, "listen to him. Please?"
Adam glanced at her then turned back to Nikki.
"If that did happen; if you endangered the project for any reason, then I'd be forced to make a report to my superiors and give my opinions as to why it had happened." He shrugged. "Helen would probably never be given access to the prison system again. With obvious professional consequences." He leaned slightly on the last word. Nikki stared at him, her face grey as the colour ebbed away.
"You complete bastard."
"Yes," Adam agreed calmly, "just so long as you understand that."
"Oh, I get it," Nikki said quietly, "I know what I have to do."
Adam nodded. "I'd suggest staying away from Ms. Stewart entirely. We'll talk again. In about a month's time. If you have any problems in the meantime, I want you to make an appointment to see me."
"It's all right, Sir. I can take care of myself," Nikki said dismissively.
"I am trying to help you, Nikki," Adam said, "even if you don't see it."
Nikki straightened and shook her head. "No thanks. Look, I know you believe what you're saying and you're a fair enough screw. You've even warned me how it's going to be. But nothing's going to change for me as long as I'm banged up. We both know that. I just have to keep my head down and do my time." Her smile was totally humourless. "OK?"
"If you feel you're being bullied, I want you to come to me."
"I'll be sure to," Nikki said, rolling her eyes.
"Good. Stay out of trouble and we'll get along fine."
Adam led the way out of the cell and Helen followed, not daring to look back at Nikki in case she gave too much away. She watched as Adam pulled the cell door closed and followed him up the corridor.
"Well, that was fun," she said.
"You all right?"
"I will be. It was ... hard seeing her again, that's all."
"It must have been. But at least she knows not to bother you now. That should make your job easier. She can't try and manipulate you if I know the 'big secret'."
He shook his head. "That's the thing about inmates. You can't let them think they've got an edge or they'll go for the jugular. Any little weakness and they'll take advantage of it."
"Nikki's not like that!"
"You don't know her any more. I'm sorry, Helen, but she's been in the system for too long. She's a hardened con now. Dangerous, manipulative, violent and untrustworthy."
"And who made her that way?" Helen asked heatedly.
Adam sighed. "Look, we both know sometimes it's about containment, especially when they've been in for a while. That's Nikki Wade now. We might as well accept it. If I were you I'd try and forget you'd ever been friends."
"Are we going to have a problem with this?" Helen asked.
"Not as far as I'm concerned. She's a con. She toes the line, which includes treating my staff respectfully, or she goes on report."
Adam shrugged. He let out a long breath. "Hard core, that's our Nikki. I just hope you can avoid her."
"I'll do my best," Helen said quietly.
Nikki sat in the mess hall, chewing her toast with concentrated attention, ignoring the eyes she could feel on her. God, this was the thing she hated most about being transferred. She could handle the sudden moves. She was used to it by now. Being curtly instructed to get her stuff together with no notice, usually late in the day. The long ride in the stiflingly claustrophobic meat wagon. Stepping out into the yard of a new nick without knowing where she'd be ending up or what sort of cell she'd be put in. It was this bit, after she arrived, that got on her nerves.
However secretly Area Management tried to move her, word spread quickly. Because of her reputation, it was always the same on her first morning out of the holding cell. Whispers, sidelong glances, people craning their necks from landings to get a glimpse of the infamous killer. She'd already had the interview with the Governor, where the bastard warned her to keep her nose clean, or else. Later, the rest would come; the inevitable confrontations with the screws and making the acquaintance of yet another punishment block; facing down and sometimes having to hurt sad cows who wanted to make a reputation for themselves by taking her out and, finally, another trip on the ghost train to another nick, where the cycle would repeat itself. Nikki was getting heartily sick of it.
She didn't want to think about what it meant that Helen was here, in the same building as her some of the time, physically close and yet totally out of reach. She suspected that it was going to be another source of pain for as long as she was at Southwold. She knew her own stupid heart. She would look for Helen every time she was out of her cell, however much she tried not to. It would take months before she really believed that there was nothing between them any more. And because she had been the one to send Helen away, a small treacherous hope would refuse to die, even once she had accepted that. Even now she found herself reviewing the memory of seeing Helen again, trying to recall every detail of the other woman's appearance and behaviour. Trying to relive the few moments they had been in the same room. Bleakly, Nikki shook her head, promising herself she'd think about it after lights out. When it was safe to be distracted.
She drank her tea and looked around, studiously not catching anyone's eye. This wing had been freshly painted in the last couple of years, but underneath that it was the usual grim Victorian architecture, chipped brickwork and scuffed iron stairways leading to the metal slabs of green cell doors, each with their spy hole and wicket gate. High barred windows let in what light there was and the usual safety mesh was stretched between the landings. Nikki wondered what her new cell mate would be like, if she had one. She wasn't supposed to share a cell, as a lifer, but overcrowding made its own rules.
She raised her eyes deliberately as a young, over made-up woman sat down opposite her, quickly assessing the newcomer. Her deeply ingrained danger sense hadn't gone off and the woman seemed to be on her own. Nikki looked at the other con over the brim of her plastic mug, and waited silently.
"You're Nikki Wade, aren't you?" the woman questioned in a quiet, hesitant voice. Her accent was middle-class, verging on posh. Nikki looked her over assessingly, making it obvious what she was doing. Slim, nice tits, nice eyes. Probably had a nice smile when she wasn't fidgeting nervously, visibly wondering whether she'd done the right thing by bothering the big, bad lifer. Nikki sat back in her chair, putting her mug down.
"The one and only. What d'you want?"
"Well ... I suppose I should welcome you to Southwold, first of all. I'm Clarissa."
Nikki made a show of looking around. "Is that where this is? They all start to blend together after a while. What d'you want?"
The stranger ran out of steam again and started fiddling with her watch. Nikki gave her thirty seconds by her internal count, then began to stand up. That got Clarissa's attention. She put out her hand.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
Nikki nodded at her mug and plate. "Find my cell. Dump this. Arrange my stuff."
"Look, darling, I've got all the time in the world. About twenty five year's worth, to be exact. But I haven't any slack for time wasters. Say what you came to say or get out of my space. All right?"
The woman nodded, then leaned closer to Nikki. "There's this screw who's been hassling me ...."
It was too much. Nikki laughed aloud, throwing her head back, indifferent to who was watching her from the landings. Then she leant closer to the younger woman. "And you want me to do something about it? Who d'you think I am? Supercon?"
Clarissa's face turned ugly. She had gone pale under her make-up. The only natural colour left was the red patch riding high on each cheek. "When a screw tried it on with you, you killed him."
Nikki looked the other woman in the face. "That's right. I think two life sentences is enough, don't you? Listen, I'm going to get enough shit from the 'officers' for killing one of their own as it is. I always do. I don't need any more. Spread the word. I'll be keeping my head down and not looking for trouble. Or any fucking crusades. Anyone who wants their battles fought for them can find another champion. I'm not up for the job."
She stood up as the figure she had been watching out of the corner of her eye arrived. She turned away from Clarissa and then straightened in mock surprise. "Sorry, Miss, didn't see you there."
"You making trouble, Wade?"
"No, Miss. I need to finish my breakfast and get to my cell. Can I go?"
The prison officer returned her stare for stare and Nikki dropped her eyes, refusing to play the dominance game. The woman, a stocky bruiser with a practical hair cut who looked like every stereotype of a hard core screw going, scowled at her.
"Were you bothering Clarissa?"
"No, Miss. Just making conversation. She approached me."
"Then why were you laughing?"
"She told me a joke, Miss."
"Really? Why don't you share?"
Nikki looked the PO in the eye and considered telling her Atkins' joke about how many screws it takes to change a light bulb but thought better of it. Like it or not, Clarissa would be caught in the fall out and Nikki found she didn't want that.
"A skeleton walks into a bar, says; 'Give me a beer. And a mop.'"
The prison officer looked Nikki up and down. "Not very funny."
"Yeah, well, not many things in here are. Miss."
"That's true. Me, for example, I'm not funny at all. Especially if people mess me about. Understand?"
"Yes, Miss," Nikki said, cold pooling in her stomach, knowing that the future was already set. Between her reputation, this screw's attitude and her unwillingness to back down, her transfer from this prison was already a reality. The only uncertainty would be in how long it took and how much damage would be done along the way. Nikki never planned the fall out but it happened anyway.
"All right," the screw said, "get on with it."
She turned away, wondering if Clarissa was rethinking her opinion of Nikki Wade, the famous killer. The thought didn't bother her. She could front up with the best of them and since her second conviction she had learned to take the worst the system threw at her and endure it. The only price was the scarring on her skin and in her heart. Sometimes she mourned the old Nikki, her openness and willingness to take risks, to fight for what she thought was right. More often she was glad that that woman had been buried soon after Helen Stewart had left her life. This way meant that she never let anyone get close, but that was still better than the remembered pain.
She climbed the stairs up onto the first floor landing two at a time, pushing herself even as her calves burned. After spending most of a night in the meat wagon she needed the exercise. She made it onto the landing and stopped short, smiling, as she recognised the woman waiting for her.
"Kelly! How long have you been here?"
"Couple of months."
Nikki frowned at the older woman. Kelly's hair was pulled into a long pony tail, the streaks of grey showing more clearly than the last time they had said goodbye. She was dressed in what she jokingly called her 'dippy hippy look', shockingly coloured loose trousers complemented by a bright, tie-died T-shirt. The copper ankhs in her earlobes flashed as she turned her head and glanced down at the ground floor, where the screw Nikki had spoken to was leaning over Clarissa, apparently having a quiet conversation with her. Nikki could see that Kelly was still wearing the plastic shoes her vegetarian beliefs made her insist on and she grinned. Some things would never change.
"I thought that you were in an open nick?"
"Not open enough for me," Kelly said, "I tried to escape so they sent me back here to finish my sentence."
"Really?" Nikki said, leading the way into her cell. She dumped her breakfast things into the sink and rinsed them out.
"Really. There was a demo I wanted to be on ...."
"God, Kelly .... Come here!"
They hugged each other. Nikki broke off the contact quickly and Kelly, understanding, let her. Nikki covered the moment by turning back to the plastic sack of belongings on her bed.
"Got to get my stuff sorted out."
"Give them something to trash when they do the cell search," Nikki said lightly, "I'm due one. I've been here a whole five hours."
"Things haven't changed, then?"
"Do they ever? Same old, same old. You know that."
Kelly nodded, then glanced out of the cell door. "Listen, Nikki, you need to be careful."
"No, really. You've pissed the Black Widow off. I saw it in her face when you was going up the stairs. She was looking daggers at your back."
"The screw. Jacobs. The one talking to Clarissa."
"What can she do that hasn't already been done?"
"No, seriously, Nikki, listen. She's a mean cow."
"Aren't they all?"
"You don't want to get on the wrong side of her."
Nikki shrugged. "Didn't have much choice. She didn't like it when Clarissa decided to make friends with me."
"I'm not surprised. She's born again."
"Well, she'll love me, then."
"She'll think you're trying to corrupt Clarissa."
"Right," Nikki said, "well, thanks for the warning. I'll watch out."
"The other screws follow her lead. If she gets a downer on you ...."
"Nothing 'll change," Nikki said emphatically, "I killed a screw, Kelly. They don't forget. Ever."
"All right," Kelly said unhappily, "you want a game of pool later?"
"Yeah, if I get a chance."
After Kelly had left the cell Nikki worked quickly and efficiently, distributing her belongings into the meagre storage available. She was just redoing her make-up when she sensed a presence at the cell door and looked round to see a powerfully built, smartly dressed woman who reminded her of Yvonne Atkins studying her. Nikki gave her a hard stare, then turned back to the mirror.
"Thought a butch dyke like you wouldn't do face paint," the woman said in a Northern Irish accent.
"Really? What I don't do is labels."
She turned to the woman, unsmiling. Not entirely accidentally, her posture had changed, solid and ready for a confrontation.
"You got a problem with that?"
"No. Just thought I'd welcome you on the wing. I'm Siobhan."
"OK, Siobhan. See you around," Nikki said.
"Oh, I'm sure we will," the other woman said pleasantly, "listen, if I can help you out, let me know."
"Like what?" Nikki asked.
"Well, that depends what you need. Maybe better make-up than they have in the canteen. Something like that?"
"If I think of anything I'll be sure to get in touch," Nikki said non commitally.
"You do that. Then we can agree terms."
"I'll bear it in mind."
"Nice to have met you."
Nikki watched her go, troubled, then headed out to find Kelly. She seriously needed to know Siobhan's history. Her instincts were screaming at her. The woman was dangerous.
Down on the wing, Gates saw Siobhan come out of Nikki's cell and nudged Jacobs sharply. "That's what I mean. That was either a business deal or negotiations about the split."
"I'll keep an eye on the situation, Sir," Jacobs said.
Helen, who was on her way through to the project, overheard the conversation. "You can't base anything on one woman going into another woman's cell!" she protested.
Gates shook his head. "Fact. Siobhan is the biggest drug dealer on this wing, though we can't prove it, just like we can't work out how she's getting the stuff in. It seems a bit of a coincidence that she's been to see Nikki Wade at the first opportunity she gets."
"Unless one of your officers shares your theory about Nikki being a drug dealer and has mentioned it to her," Helen said.
"Why would they do that?"
"Oh, I don't know. Because they were already doing her favours?"
"If you're going to make that sort of accusation about my staff, then I need to see some proof," Gates said angrily.
"Come on, we all know corrupt officers exist!"
"And when you bring me some concrete evidence I'll personally hang them out to dry. Till then, stay out of it and away from Wade!"
"Fine," Helen said, "I'll get on, shall I?"
She strode away. Gates and Jacobs watched her go. "You're going to be Wade's personal officer," Gates told Jacobs, "how d'you feel about that?"
"I think it's a good idea, Sir. Means I can keep an eye on her. I think she needs that."
"I agree. She's a trouble maker and I want to contain her."
"Yes. Especially given her deviant tendencies."
"Romans 1:26-27, Sir."
"Well, just be careful," Gates said, "I don't want any accusations of harassment or bullying. Remember the zero tolerance policy."
"Don't worry, Sir, I know what to avoid."
"Right," Gates said, "I'll let you get on."
Claire waved as Helen came into the restaurant, then frowned. "What's the matter?"
"I saw her today."
"How? She's in ...."
"She was shipped into Southwold today after an incident at her last prison."
"Well, at least you've told me," Claire said.
She looked up at Helen.
"Look, sit down, will you? Stop standing over me. I'm getting a crick in my neck."
Helen sat down, ordered a drink, and waited until the waiter was out of earshot. She breathed deeply, trying to control herself. She felt almost physically sick with the anger that was consuming her.
"Why did you not tell me?" she demanded.
"Tell you what?"
"She looks terrible! She's lost weight, she's pale. She's bitter, uncommunicative, defiant ... they're destroying her piece by piece."
"I know how she looks," Claire said, "I see her regularly, remember?"
"Why did you not tell me?"
"Firstly, because of client confidentiality. Nikki has made it very clear that I'm not to pass on information about her to you."
"And you listened to her?"
"It's my job," Claire said, "secondly, because I thought you might react like this."
"Of course I have. The woman I love is being brutalised and I can't do anything about it."
Distractedly, Helen took a swallow of wine. Claire reached out and touched her hand. "Did you hear what you just said? About not being able to do anything?"
"Yes," Helen agreed. She put her face in her hands. "I wish this wasn't happening."
"Helen, you have to be strong. You're her support system out here."
"She doesn't know I exist anymore."
"Yes, she does," Claire said, "she always asks after you, wants to know how you're doing."
"Really?" Helen said. Claire looked at the hope and relief in her face and inwardly cursed Nikki Wade as a stubborn, selfish, bitch. She gestured to the waiter, ordering another bottle of wine and some olives. When they had been delivered, she refilled Helen's glass and pushed it towards her.
"Right, let me tell you about this client of mine. We'll call her 'client X'. I can't share a lot of detail. But I can tell you why I think she'll make it through. She's got this girlfriend ...."
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